STAP cells (stap細胞) are real deal says new Vacanti patent declaration

STAP is back?vacanti-stap-figure-2017

Really?

No, I don’t believe so, but there’s an interesting development and twist on the STAP cell front.

Just a few days ago on January 4, 2017 Dr. Charles Vacanti, the originator of the STAP cells concept, submitted a declaration to the USPTO affirming the belief that STAP cells are real and requesting that the patent office allow the rejected STAP patent application to be reconsidered.

I find a number of aspects of this development notable:

  • The declaration says they have generated new data supporting STAP, but the two figures shown are in my opinion unconvincing. More specifically, just showing some floating spheres and an image of a single cell (not even stained for a marker) doesn’t really prove anything. You can see a snapshot of Figure 1 above. Note that in May 2016 an Obokata-associated website posted some supposed STAP validation data as well, but in my view it too wasn’t at all convincing.
  • qPCR results on induced expression of pluripotency genes are mentioned, but I didn’t see that actual data in the document or other related documents so as far as I can tell it can’t be evaluated at this point. Update: I’m still searching to see if I can find a patent document that shows the new qPCR and it may be in there somewhere. Stay tuned. BTW, you can look at the patent documents directly yourself at this USPTO website. Plug in patent application #14/397,080 and click on the tab at the top that reads “Image File Wrapper”. I’m not a patent expert so there may be other useful tabs at the top as well where for instance the qPCR data could be found or other information.
  • The declaration expresses concern with how Nature handled the STAP cell situation with the retractions, indicating that in the view of some of the authors there should have been an indication that the authors believed the concept was real.
  • Why do some of the STAP authors believe in it still but many others in the stem cell field don’t? Apparently, according to the declaration, the other labs who tried the STAP method just didn’t use the proper technique. I have doubts about that explanation. For instance, Vacanti’s own Harvard/B&W’s colleague George Daley and other top stem cell scientists published two BCA pieces in Nature refuting the existence of STAP. Reportedly they even did some of this work in Vacanti’s own lab with someone who was an author on the STAP papers.
  • The STAP cell patent application has been transferred to a private company called Vcell Therapeutics, Inc., which seems somewhat obscure. A Japanese blog has dug into this situation and mentions a J. Kelly Ganjei, a name I’m not familiar with, as a leader of Vcell. There’s even some speculation that Vcell may be short for “Vacanti cell”, but I don’t know about that. Given the sound of the company’s name I can’t help but think of VSELs, another controversial kind of stem cell, when reading the word “Vcell”.

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Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) website posts dubious STAP cell validation data

Haruko Obokata is most well-known for her role as first author of the now retracted two STAP cell Nature papers. These manuscripts claimed to have made pluripotent and even totipotent stem cells simply by stressing cells out with acid treatment or in other ways. Nobody else could get this method to work to create the so-called STAP cells.

It was an all around scientific disaster and I don’t know anyone who believes that STAP cells are real, but Obokata and another one of her mentors, Dr. Charles Vacanti have still at times indicated their belief in STAP.

STAP cell Obokata 2016

Screenshot from STAP Hope website

Obokata appears to have launched a new website at the end of March of this year and there was a sense that this site along with her memoir-like book would together tell her side of the story plus might continue to push the notion that STAP is real. Update: it is formally possible that Obokata is not running this website so I have made a few change to this post.

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Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) launches new website with STAP claims

ObokataWebsiteStory

Image courtesy of Dr. Bob Geller from Nikkan Gendai (on sale April 1, official date April 2)

Even as the book of Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) had been fading in popularity on Amazon Japan (update: it is now increasing again), there is some other news with her as she has launched a new website.

The website, STAP Hope Page, seems to often not work now, but you can also see it here via Wayback Machine.

Hat tip to several readers and people on Twitter including Buvery and Bob Geller.

JIJI Press has confirmed that the site is real as some had speculated it might be a parody site. My impression just from reading it earlier today even before I knew about JIJI’s findings was that it felt real. I’m not sure why the site is now down.

JIJI has an interesting quote:

“On the site, Obokata, 32, says she hopes to help other scientists succeed in creating STAP cells.
According to her representative, lawyer Hideo Miki, Obokata sent him an email informing him of the establishment of the site a few days ago. In the message, she insisted that parts of the original STAP cell experiments she undertook were successful.”

The inclusion of the word “Hope” seems appropriate as I think she must be hoping that she still can redeem STAP even if only indirectly.

On the website are a number of things including more on her side of the STAP story (still hinting it seems at blaming Teru Wakayama) and even a STAP protocol. This protocol feels reminiscent of when Vacanti posted a new STAP protocol on the Brigham and Women’s website may 18 months or so back when no one else seemed to get it to work.

The Obokata website includes an apology for STAP. There is also some text on the announcement page related to her thesis:

“My Ph.D thesis that was reintroduced to Waseda University is still under advisement with relevant people about lawsuits or readmission to other universities.

While it is not clear what decision will be reached, it has been decided that the public opening of my Ph.D thesis is to be postponed for this reason.

I apologize in advance for this.

March 25, 2016
Haruko Obokata”

Her statement to end her homepage is this:

“I am unable to further continue my own STAP research. All I can do is to leave my recipe to create STAP cells here. My fervent hope is that someone will open the next door to the secrets of life. STAP phenomenon may be the key to the door. I believe that STAP phenomenon will prove to be a great contribution to humanity in the future.”

It seems at this point that Obokata and Vacanti both, despite having gone their separate ways, still to some extent believe in STAP based on what they’ve written or has been quoted from them recently.

Obokata questioned by police over STAP cell fiasco

Haruko Obokata

Obokata presenting STAP in happier time

Haruko Obokata was reportedly questioned by police in Japan today.

The questioning relates to the STAP cell scandal that led to the retraction of two Nature papers.

As first author of the papers, Obokata and other authors had reported that they could make IPSC-like cells simply via acid or other stress treatment. However, it is now widely believed that the supposed STAP cells were in actuality ES cells (or ES cells mixed with other cell types), and there has been some question over whether the ES cells were technically stolen by someone. Japan times reports:

“She was questioned in response to a complaint filed by another former Riken researcher in January last year, although Riken itself has not reported any crime, the police said…The complainant claimed someone had stolen embryonic stem cells from the laboratory in Kobe in or after April 2011, when Obokata was still employed by Riken.”

Obokata has been in the news recently because she just published a book telling her side of STAP and shifting the blame onto others with claims such as that she was framed. It’s unclear if the police would continue with this potential case, although it sounds like there is at least some circumstantial evidence that something happened:

“A container labeled “ES cells” was found in Obokata’s laboratory during the investigation, but Obokata denied mixing them, intentionally or unintentionally, with the specimens used in her research.”

I asked a scientist in Japan about this development and they had this to say:

“I suppose by publishing her book and profiting massively from  research misconduct she forced the cops’ hand a bit. I still doubt they’ll prosecute, but at least they have to go through the motions of investigating…”

I’ve been critical of the whole STAP affair in the past, but even so the idea of scientists being questioned by police is unsettling.

Haruko Obokata (小保方 晴子) book is a #1 best seller

Obokata book AmazonHaruko Obokata wrote a book about the STAP cell scandal telling it from her perspective.

Fom all accounts I’ve seen, she has sought in her writings to shift the blame away from herself. She even claimed she was framed by other scientists. To say I’m skeptical would be an understatement.

Will this book have any impact? Many scientists thought it would make a splash and then fade away.

Not so, at least so far.

At present Obokata’s book is the #1 best-selling book on all of Amazon Japan, which is a huge deal. A hat tip to Dr. Robert Geller for the heads up on this.

Clearly in Japan a very large number of people are buying this book, which both raises the possibility that it could be influential on public opinion there and that she could profit handsomely from its sales. Her publisher apparently has given her a $50,000 USD equivalent advance, but if the book sells beyond expectations she could get even more.

Might it be translated into English?

Do people believe the claims in the book? The reviews on Amazon Japan are very mixed with many one-star reviews with harsh words and overall not a great rating, but there are five-star reviews too.